On the outskirts of Jinan in China’s eastern Shandong province, a billion cockroaches are being fed with 50 tonnes of kitchen waste every day – equivalent to the weight of seven adult elephants.
The waste arrives before daybreak at a facility run by Shandong Qiao Bin Agricultural Technology Co, where it is then fed through pipes to cockroaches in their concrete cells.
Waste-composting firms in provinces like Shandong are betting big on rising demand for food-waste disposal services as cities continue to expand amid a long-term urbanization drive.
Shandong QiaoBin plans to complete three additional cockroach facilities early next year, with the aim of processing one-third of the kitchen waste produced by nearby Jinan, a city of almost 7 million people.
The recent ban on using food waste as pig feed due to African swine fever outbreaks is also spurring the growth of the cockroach industry.
“Cockroaches are a bio-technological pathway for the converting and processing of kitchen waste,” said Liu Yusheng, president of Shandong Insect Industry Association.
The number of workers in the industry in Shandong are now in the hundreds, and rapidly growing, Liu said.
Kitchen waste-consuming cockroaches can also be a good source of protein for pigs and other livestock.
“It’s like turning rubbish into commodities, turning trash into resources,” said Li Hongyi, chairman of Shandong Qiao Bin.
In a remote village in south-western Sichuan province, 47-year old villager Li Bingcai has similar ideas.
Li, who used to sell mobile phones, has invested 1 million yuan ($143,769) to raise his own cockroaches, which he sells to pig farms, fisheries and Chinese medicine companies.
His farm now has 3.4 million cockroaches, and it is a business that he would like to propagate in his village.
“People think it’s strange that I do this kind of business,” Li said. “It has great economic value, and my purpose is to lead other villagers towards prosperity if they are willing to follow me.”
His village has two farms. Li’s goal is to create 20.
Elsewhere in Sichuan, a company called Gooddoctor is rearing 6 billion cockroaches, which are used as raw materials for traditional Chinese medicine.
“The essence of cockroaches is good for curing oral and peptic ulcers, skin wounds and even stomach cancer,” said Wen Jianguo, manager Gooddoctor’s cockroach facility.
When cockroaches reach the end of their lifespan, which is about six months, they will be blasted by steam, washed and dried, before being sent to a huge extraction tank.
When asked if there is a chance the cockroaches would escape, Wen said that would be worthy of a disaster movie.
“We have a moat filled with water, and in the water, there are fish. If the cockroaches escape, they would fall into the moat, and the fish will eat them all,” he said.